Tag Archives: Lidia Lopukhova

Lydia Lopokova house, London

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DSCN7131Most of the world knows her as Lydia Lopokova, although she was born and grew up in St. Petersburg as Lidia Lopukhova. The “pseudonym” (if you’re generous) or the abomination of her real name (if you’re honest) was visited upon us by Sergei Diaghilev. When he hired Lopukhova to join the Ballets Russes in 1910, he resolved that the world would not know what to do with the “Lopukhova” configuration… as though “Lopokova” were a great improvement. But history is what it is (just for the record, Russian folk wisdom calls it a turkey) so we have what we have: Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981) , one of the stars of the Ballets Russes. She never again lived in Russia and, for many years, lived at this house at 46 Gordon Square, Kings Cross, London, with her husband John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist and member of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals.
Lopokova’s father Vasily was a simple man from the Tambov region of Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg he accepted a job as a ticket taker at the Alexandrinsky Theater. But there must have been something balletic in his genes – or in those of his wife, Rosalia Constanza Karlovna Douglas. In any case, we are told that Rosalia loved the ballet. Russian Wikipedia notes that all six of the Lopukhov children became dancers, with Lydia’s oldest brother Fyodor (1886-1973) becoming an innovative choreographer at the Mariinsky Theater, after having danced at that storied venue from 1905 to 1922. Another brother Andrei (1898-1947) was a leading character dancer at the Mariinsky from 1916 to 1945. A sister Yevgenia (1884-1943) was a popular dancer in the variety theater and then began performing operetta after she quit dancing in the 1920s. These three siblings made major contributions to Russian/Soviet ballet and theater during their lives.
Lopokova began her ballet training in early childhood at the Imperial Ballet School, from which she graduated in 1909 (some sources say 1910). She may or may not have performed from time to time on the stage of the Mariinsky when still young, but it was in 1910 that she accepted an offer from Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes (the union didn’t last long, although she rejoined the company in 1916 when she paired with Vaclav Nijinsky).
Again, sources split on the details of her first performing tour abroad. One Russian source tells us that she toured the United States with her brother Fyodor and Anna Pavlova from 1907-1910. Many other sources, remaining silent about those dates, put Lopokova in the United States from 1912 to 1916, where she often performed on Broadway stages. The Spartacus Educational website tells us that during that period she was drawing a salary of ₤16,000 per month. Not too shabby.

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Much has been written about Lopokova’s active and sometimes unorthodox love life; all you need do is Google it if you’re interested. (Igor Stravinsky was just one of many dalliances.) But it was her encounter with Keynes that appears to have given her emotional life a center. He fawned over her in Diaghilev’s 1921  production of Sleeping Beauty (renamed Sleeping Princess because, Diaghilev claimed, “I have no beauties in my company”), attending the theater night after night and lavishing her with attention. She married Keynes in 1925 and their union was strong, despite much small-minded carping from his famous Bloomsbury friends. (They were apparently shocked to see their friend Keynes move from male lovers to a woman. If you need information on Keynes’ sexual proclivities, an article in the Independent provides plenty.) When Keynes fell seriously ill in 1937, Lopokova left the public eye entirely in order to devote all her time to him. She essentially acted as his caretaker for the last nine years of his life. Much of the time the two spent together from 1921 until 1946 would have been at the home pictured here. (They first met in 1918 during one of the Ballets Russes tours in London.)
Judith Mackrell, the author of the Lopokova biography Bloomsbury Ballerina, described Lopokova’s appearance at Gordon Square in an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2008.
By the spring of 1923, only weeks after they became lovers, Keynes installed Lopokova in a flat in Gordon Square, just a few doors away from his own house. The move put her at the heart of Bloomsbury, as she occupied rooms below Vanessa Bell at number 50 [see the final photo below] and joined in the collective meals and parties held at number 46. A newcomer had never been so forcibly inserted into the circle’s daily life, and it didn’t take long for Bloomsbury to close ranks against her.”
One of Lopokova’s early appreciators and later one of her biggest detractors also lived right here on Gordon Square. That would have been Virginia Woolf, who, over the years, became quite catty about Lopokova. According to Mackrell, Woolf once fumed, “You cannot argue solidly in her presence. She has no head piece.” (The comment is quoted in an article Mackrell wrote for The Guardian in 2008.) Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that Lopokova ever cared. She seems to have been a woman of strong fortitude; she didn’t let little things bother her.
Lopokova,” writes Mackrell in The Guardian, “was unlike any Russian ballerina that London had seen. A 27-year-old former child dancer with the Russian Imperial Ballet who had enjoyed an itinerant career, including a starring spell in Broadway musicals, she was an entirely different type from Diaghilev’s prewar ballerinas. While Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina had set the mould with their darkly classical beauty, Lopokova was a witty soubrette, her performances on stage less a refinement of pure technique than the product of a vivid, versatile intelligence and a fizzing personality. As Clive Bell argued in a long, theoretical essay, Lopokova was the embodiment of the new modernist ballet.”
Lopokova left the ballet after performing twice in Coppélia at the Royal Opera House in 1933. Despite a heavy Russian accent, she played several dramatic roles on the English stage – Shakespeare, Ibsen and Moliere – although her performing life ended abruptly when Keynes fell ill.
Rupert Christiansen, in a review of Mackrell’s Bloomsbury Ballerina, wrote: “Although some found her irritating, nobody thought her faux. Lydia Lopokova was the real thing, possessed of what Virginia Woolf described as ‘the genius of personality’. […]  Through her 35 years of widowhood, she became increasingly reclusive, living like a peasant babushka at Tilton in Sussex, the farmhouse she and Keynes had made their home, just over the hill from Bloomsbury’s retreat at Charleston. She showed no resentment and no desire to dwell on past glories, but faded into her dotage without complaint, ‘grandly indifferent to what anyone else thought of her’, her ‘genius of personality’ undimmed to the last.”

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Ballets Russes at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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The critics ate the Ballets Russes alive when they opened for a short, “low-priced,” season in London at the Lyceum Theatre on 21 Wellington St. at the end of 1926. All kinds of stuff about them going pop (in the local lingua of the time, of course). They’d lost their moxie. They were pandering to the public. That kind of stuff. Oh, really? I’ll bet you’d have a hell of a time finding a critic who didn’t fawn on The Lion King, which opened at this same venue in 1999 and is still running today! So much for critics, so much for standards, so much for taste! In fact, when you walk around London’s West End, as I did a few months ago, and you see all those cotton candy musicals gumming up the city’s stages, you wonder how London’s reputation as a great theater center has survived. But that’s just an aside. I’m here to think about the Ballets Russes today.
The show that really caught in the London critics’ collective craw in 1926 was The Triumph of Neptune. It premiered Dec. 3, 1926, and was composed by Lord Berners, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first work that Diaghilev ever commissioned from a British composer. It was considered populist and folkloric and decidedly beneath the great Ballets Russes. Here is what the critic for The Nation wrote:
The excited giggles that greeted some of the more bizarre elements of the newer ballets betrayed a large sprinkling of a less highbrow audience. The season which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1926 brought out an even motlier public, an enormous army of admirers, who make up an audience as unintelligent as any other, and apparently quite incapable of discriminating between one ballet and another.”
Oh, yes, where have I seen this before? If only the stupid public and the talentless artists would listen to us, the genius critics! But I keep digressing today…
Still, the razzes were not unanimous. In a friendly contemporary essay about the ballet, one scholar dug up something resembling a positive response and put it into context:
In fact Diaghilev was as attuned to trends as ever,” writes Anne Witchard in “Bedraggled Ballerinas on a Bus Back to Bow: The ‘Fairy Business’.” “It was a craze for mid-century Victoriana among London’s so-called Bright Young Things that persuaded him to commission the eccentric peer and composer Lord Berners and his friend Sacheverell Sitwell to create the ballet score and libretto. The Triumph of Neptune was a combination of surreal pastiche, camp sentiment, and fierce nostalgia, and it prompted the normally anti-Diaghilev Daily Express critic, Hannen Swaffer, to state: ‘We saw at the Lyceum last night the beginnings of a British ballet.’ This was not quite what Haskell had meant. Where Haskell was referring to the artistic credibility of English ballet dancing as a nascent phenomenon thanks to Russian intervention, what Swaffer saw in The Triumph of Neptune was the rediscovery of an already credible native tradition. The flamboyant dandy-aesthetes of the 1920s embraced a ‘High-coloured Victorian England’ as wholeheartedly as pre-war Bloomsbury had rejected it, and Diaghilev’s company offered ways of making aesthetic connections to that tradition.”

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The Triumph of Neptune was joined in rep by, among other titles, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. This latter work premiered in Monte Carlo a few months before London, and received a bit of a scandalous reception in Paris after Monte Carlo, but before London. The Parisians, apparently always quick to complain (or quick to give Diaghilev the publicity he craved) were unhappy that the pair of lovers in this version are swept away to safety on a new-fangled airplane rather than can kill themselves in the finale. Here, in a review of a CD containing both The Triumph of Neptune and Romeo and Juliet, is a description of the ballet as it unfolded on stage:
This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance.  The first tableaux is ‘In a ballet classroom,’ in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance.  The second tableaux is ‘At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet‘ in which the first meeting of the two lovers  is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain call—they have eloped by aeroplane.”
Romeo was danced by Serge Lifar (Serhiy Lyfar in transliteration from his native Ukrainian); Juliet by Alice (Alisa) Nikitina. You can see them in a photo on Pinterest.
A third ballet that played with the other two was a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Alexander Golovin’s sets and Leon (Lev) Bakst’s costumes to the famous 1910 production had been damaged beyond repair, Diaghilev had Natalya Goncharova create a new environment for the piece. (You can see a nice shot of her backdrop here.) According to The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, The Firebird opened Nov. 22, 1926, and played 10 times through Dec. 11. It used the original Michel Fokine (Mikhail Fokin) choreography, and starred Serge Lifar  as Ivan Tsarevich and Lydia Lopokova (Lidia Lopukhova) as the Firebird. Chatty birds even today tell us that Lopokova did not like working with Lifar, but she put on a game face and did it anyway.
There were apparently several other works that joined these main pieces during the London “low-priced” season. The fine AusStage website informs us that on Thursday, Nov. 25, the following combination of ballets and symphonic pieces opened: The Three-Cornered HatThe Firebird,  L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, and Prince Igor, plus the interludes of Largo by Gemignani (first performance in England), Jeux en Plein Air by Tailleferre (first performance in England) and Scherzo by Borodin.
Look at all that cheap, populist stuff! Right here at the Lyceum, November and December 1926.

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